Course:ANTH309/2024/Tibetan Sustainabilities

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Map of Tibet created and uploaded by Lencer. Tibet is nestled around many nations in the Himalayas and between global powers, making it a prominent region for himalayan anthropological focus.

Tibet lies in Central East Asia, where, given its high altitude north of the Himalayas, it has often been referred to as the “Roof of the World.” It is located at the crossroads of many ecological, cultural, and political pressures. This page exploring Tibetan Sustainabilities looks into various key challenges that confront Tibetans in their homeland and abroad, from citizenship, gender, religion, art, environment, identity, and customs, to the relationship between humans and animals. These aspects underline the resilience and complexities behind sustaining Tibetan heritage amidst great adversity.

The struggles of “Citizenship and Place” in Tibet illustrate the fluid nature of identity and belonging of Tibetans under Chinese state repression. In these instances, the meanings behind citizenship are constantly redefined. Tibetans, both within Tibet and in exile, question their identity and citizenship, struggling to maintain connections to their ancestral homeland in the face of Chinese occupation. This ongoing battle for Tibetan identity is linked with the “Difficulties in Sustaining Tibetan Identity.” Tibetans confront the challenge of navigating through a geopolitical landscape that consists of conflicting interests. These conflicts include the need to bring support and recognition to the Tibetan struggle, which may often be overshadowed by the need to maintain healthy relationships with the overarching Chinese state. The Tibetan diaspora also plays critical roles as they strive to promote their culture, working to balance the desire for autonomy alongside the practicalities of global and regional politics. Connected to regional politics are “Traditional Customs and Language,” which emphasize that it is essential to understand the nuances behind the Tibet Autonomous Region within the political boundaries of The People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government has implemented various tactics to assimilate the population into a more “Chinese” way of life, which further highlights the aforementioned importance of Tibetan social and political pursuits to sustain their heritage and traditions.

Buddhist prayer flags flying on the Tibetan Plateau hung by local Buddhists as a way of sending their prayers to the heavens, uploaded by Tenace10. Symbolism in religion and art are important pillars of sustaining and understanding Tibetan identity.

In the realms of “Gender,” the discourse explores the evolving landscape of gender identity through the intersection of feminism and traditional Tibetan Buddhism in Tibetan society. By discussing imperialistic ideologies while emphasizing the preservation of Tibetan cultural values, gender equalities are addressed in alignment with the preservation of cultural heritage. Continuing with culture, “Religion” and the “Role of Visual Culture and Art” serve as means for cultural continuity and social resistance. Tibetan Buddhism has adapted to not only survive harsh suppression, but it has thrived by expanding globally. Here, spiritual and cultural traditions are preserved and can survive through their influences on expanding communities. Pervasive symbols like Tibetan prayer flags and the popularity of texts like the English translation of the Bardo Thödol (i.e., a Tibetan Buddhist text) further highlight the adaptability and growth of Tibetan religion and heritage. Visual culture, such as those exemplified by artists like Gadé and institutions such as the Norbulingka Art Institute, surface the burgeoning abilities of how visual art and cultural programs serve as critical tools for preserving Tibetan identity and heritage, enabling pathways toward cultural sustainability and generational transmission.

A family of nomadic Tibetan herdsmen who herd yak standing in front of Lake Ximencuo on the Tibetan Plateau, taken by Tenace10. It is crucial to consider the traditional Tibetan ways of life to understand the modern challenges they face in sustaining their homeland and culture.

Urgency is further emphasized as “Environment and Climate Change” integrates sustainability within the Tibetan Plateau. Beyond cultural and ideological sustainability, sustaining the physical land and environment of Tibet is crucial as the Tibetan Plateau is warming three times faster than the global average. With Chinese policies forbidding pastoralism and emphasizing environmentally hazardous practices, experts call for an immediate turn toward sustainable practices that harmoniously respect the region's biodiversity and its people's cultural practices. Relating to nature and tied to Tibetan culture are “Domestic Animals and People.” The deep bonds between domestic animals, particularly farm animals such as sheep and yaks, and humans are evident in Tibet, especially considering the pastoral lifestyle of many past and modern Tibetans. Animals not only serve as an economic means of providing labour and goods but also hold deep cultural and spiritual significance in Tibetan society. Implementing Tibetan practices that are sustainable can ensure the well-being of the land, the animals, and the people of the region.

Therefore, this Tibetan Sustainabilities page aims to provide an accessible and holistic understanding of the challenges faced by Tibetans worldwide. This is done by investigating both the perseverance and sustainable practices employed by Tibetans, emphasizing the depth of the cultural, religious, historical, environmental, spiritual, and material strategies toward sustainability. This information serves to orient readers toward an understanding of the ongoing efforts by Tibetans within Tibet and its diaspora, specifically, to preserve their distinct heritage amidst global challenges and relationships.

Drekong monastery in the Tibet autonomous region, China. Having been destroyed both by the Mongols in 1290 and the Chinese state in 1959. It serves as a sign of resilience and reminder of Tibetan identity (Nelmin, 2019).

Citizenship and Place

Subtopic Introduction

Within the Tibetan Autonomous Region, citizenship and belonging is a multifaceted, complicated issue. From being citizens to a state that annexed their own and also being stateless refugees in other nations, Tibetan citizenship and belonging is a complex topic. Against this backdrop of political upheaval and cultural repression, Tibetans both within Tibet and in exile have grappled with questions of citizenship, belonging, and identity. Tibetan refugees, forced to flee their homeland in the face of political persecution, have faced challenges in asserting their citizenship rights while navigating the complexities of refugee status in host countries. Meanwhile, Tibetans remaining within Tibet have struggled to maintain their cultural identity and preserve their connection to their ancestral land in the face of Chinese occupation.

Historical Context

The arrival of Chinese forces in Tibet marked a turning point in Tibetan history, leading to a profound disruption of traditional governance structures and cultural practices. The annexation of Tibet by the Chinese government brought about a redefinition of citizenship within the Tibetan Autonomous Region, with Tibetans being subjugated under Chinese sovereignty and to the authority of the Chinese state.[1] Chinese policies aimed at assimilating Tibetans into mainstream Chinese culture posed a direct challenge to Tibetan identity and citizenship rights, threatening the preservation of Tibetan language, religion, and cultural heritage.

Prior to the annexation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China in the 1950s, Tibetan society was characterized by a unique form of governance that centered around spiritual leadership under the Dalai Lama and a decentralized political system. Citizenship in Tibet was not merely a legal status but a reflection of one's connection to the land, community, and spiritual traditions of Tibet.[1] Tibetans enjoyed a sense of autonomy and self-governance, rooted in their collective identity as a distinct cultural and ethnic group.

Citizenship and Place

The implementation of Chinese rule brought about a redefinition of citizenship, one that was no longer tied solely to Tibetan identity but also encompassed obedience to the Chinese state. This shift blurred the boundaries of citizenship, making it less static and more fluid.[2] Tibetans found themselves navigating between multiple layers of identity and allegiance, as they grappled with the complexities of belonging to both Tibetan cultural and political communities, as well as the larger Chinese state.[3] This also similarly played out within the Indian state as well. Considering that many Tibetans are supportive of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and "refugees" in the eyes of the international community, it is interesting to consider the fluidity inherent within identity constructs of Tibetans living abroad[4] Yet interestingly, many Tibetans refuse citizenship at their own expense. Refusal is not merely a passive rejection but a strategic assertion of identity and belonging, rather the dynamic relationship between citizenship and political allegiance.[5]

Citizen or Refugee?

Tibetan identity is deeply rooted in with the concept of citizenship in the countries where they seek refuge, such as Canada or India. As Tibetans navigate the asylum process, they grapple with the complexities of maintaining their cultural and political allegiance to Tibet while seeking legal recognition in their host countries.[6] This dynamic often leads to a practice of refusal, where Tibetans reject citizenship as a means of asserting their ongoing commitment to Tibet's sovereignty.[6] By refusing to fully assimilate into the citizenship frameworks of their host countries, Tibetans challenge conventional notions of belonging and sovereignty, insisting instead on the recognition of their distinct political identity. This refusal underscores the broader struggle for Tibetan sovereignty and highlights the tension between the rights afforded by citizenship and the desire to maintain a connection to their homeland[6] Also the practice of refusal carries profound implications, challenging conventional notions of belonging and sovereignty. By rejecting citizenship, Tibetans signal a dedication to their homeland, refusing to compromise their allegiance despite residing in foreign lands.[7] In doing so, they highlight the tension between the rights conferred by citizenship and the imperative to maintain a connection to Tibet. This tension underscores the broader struggle for Tibetan sovereignty, showing the profound challenges faced by Tibetans in exile as they navigate the complex terrain of identity, citizenship, and political allegiance.[7]

Furthermore, this refusal to fully embrace citizenship reflects a broader resistance to assimilation and cultural erasure. Tibetans in exile assert their right to preserve their cultural heritage and political identity, resisting pressures to conform to the norms and values of their host societies.[7] In essence, their refusal serves as a form of resistance, a reaffirmation of their commitment to Tibet's sovereignty and a rejection of attempts to erase their distinctiveness.[7]

Yet questions arise in taking citizenship from nation states that Tibetans settle in. As Tibetan refugees struggle with the implications of acquiring Indian nationality, they are confronted with fundamental questions about the preservation of their cultural heritage, the pursuit of political autonomy, and the ongoing campaign for Tibetan freedom.[8]


To conclude, the issue of Tibetan citizenship and belonging is deeply complex and multifaceted, shaped by historical events, political upheaval, and cultural repression. The annexation of Tibet by China in the 1950s marked a significant turning point, leading to a change of citizenship within the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Tibet identity outside Chinese occupied Tibet.

Both Tibetans within Tibet and those living in exile have struggled with questions of citizenship, belonging, and identity in the face of Chinese occupation and political persecution. While Tibetans in exile navigate the complexities of refugee status and asylum processes in host countries, those remaining within Tibet struggle to preserve their cultural identity and connection to their ancestral land amidst Chinese assimilation policies.

The refusal of citizenship among Tibetan refugees reflects a strategic assertion of identity and political allegiance, challenging conventional notions of belonging and sovereignty. By rejecting assimilation into the citizenship frameworks of their host countries, Tibetans assert their ongoing commitment to Tibet's sovereignty.

However, acquiring citizenship in host countries such as India raises fundamental questions about the preservation of Tibetan culture and the mission for Tibetan freedom. As Tibetans navigate these complex issues, they continue to assert their right to pursue their aspirations for political self-determination.

Basically, the struggle for Tibetan citizenship and belonging is deeply intertwined with the broader struggle for Tibetan sovereignty and cultural preservation. It is a struggle that crosses oceans, and encompasses both those living within Tibet and those in exile, united by a shared commitment to their cultural heritage and the pursuit of freedom.

Difficulties in Sustaining Tibetan Identity: Regional and Global Political Relationships

Subtopic Introduction

19th Century Map of Free Tibet highlighting the importance of its central location in Asia and the Himalayas.

This informative wiki-styled essay argues that by understanding Tibet's historical legacy of identity, current geopolitical challenges, and the role of the Tibetan diaspora in maintaining its culture, one can understand the challenges posed by geopolitical relationships on sustaining Tibetan identity. A major aspect of this struggle includes how the global and regional political landscape is currently riddled with resistance caused by fears of damaging relationships with the People's Republic of China. Further themes of this essay include the basis, resilience, and adaptability of Tibetan culture and identity in the face of these difficulties.

Historical Overview and Cultural Identity of Tibet

Statues of the 5th Dalai Lama acting as the teacher to a suspected Mongol Khan Leader depicted by Johann Grueber in the lobby of the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa in 1661.

Located in central Asia, Tibet possesses a complex history. Tibet was historically an independent entity with a distinct cultural and religious identity (primarily Buddhism)[9], which has shaped the modern landscape of Tibet's political relationships with its neighbors. The region's strategic location in Central Asia nestled among major powers, such as China and India, coupled with conflicts between conquerors such as the Mongols and British, has often made Tibet a focal point of geopolitical interests[10].

Understanding how other cultures have influenced Tibet is essential in understanding how Tibetan identity is shaped and can be sustained. During the Mongol period in the 13th century, Tibet was incorporated into the vast Mongol empire[9][10]. Mongol rulers shifted to becoming patrons of Tibetan Buddhism which further spread it throughout the empire. This brought forth a fundamental pillar in Tibetan identity called Chöyön[11], which is the Tibetan theory of the priest and patron relationship. This theory molded Tibetan identity around being teachers and spiritual leaders to the lay patrons who ruled them, instead of seeing themselves as subjects to lords[11]

Tibet in the 20th Century: Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Chinese Influence

Machine guns on the roof of the Jokhang Temple used by Tibetan rebels to defend themselves against the People's Liberation Army. Image provided by the German Federal Archive.

In the 20th century, Tibet's relations with its neighbors entered a new phase as the British Empire temporarily brought Tibet under its influence[9][10] due to Tibet's strategic location between China and India. Tibet continued to maintain a degree of autonomy until the mid-20th century. Even though they are not currently self-sovereign[12], many Tibetans make this autonomy a part of their identity. Given the current political tensions, this adds a sense of agency[12] to their efforts in garnering support for their struggle to preserve this aspect of their identity.

The most significant and enduring impact on Tibet's sovereignty came from China in the 20th century[9][10] . After the Chinese Civil War, the newly established PRC asserted its claim over Tibet, viewing it as an integral part of Chinese territory. Despite initial agreements to preserve Tibet's autonomy and cultural identity, the Chinese government has increasingly integrated the region into its administrative and political framework[13]. The PRC justified these actions based on claims that raise many questions in modern conversations[13], leading to significant cultural and demographic changes.

Contemporary Tibetan Perspectives and Identity under Chinese Rule

Integral to sustaining Tibetan identity is understanding the feelings and emotions of Tibetans regarding the greater arching politics that influence them. Tibetan opinions on the situation of Chinese influence vary greatly. Many are disgruntled with Chinese rule, believing that Tibetan identity is dying and being erased[14]. Similarly, others feel that Tibetan voices are being ignored by their Chinese rulers and they are made to feel like exiles in their homeland[15]. However, due to Chinese influence having imposed inferiority into the minds of traditional pastoralists to make them feel lesser and uneducated compared to the rest of society[16], some Tibetans appreciate rule[16]. Efforts to sustain Tibetan cultural identity are thus strained due conflicts of wanting to maintain their traditionality amidst large societal developmental influences.

The Flag of Independent State Tibet (1916-1951), which is still used by the Tibetan government in exile. The flag serves as a symbol of the Tibetan Independence Movement and the symbolism behind the flag is used to generate Tibetan pride in their Identity[17]. Image created by Felipe Fidelis Tobias.

Another challenge faced by the Tibetan diaspora includes establishing themselves officially as Tibetan since Chinese rule prevents a strong Tibetan government from being instituted. The Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan Government in Exile) has mainatined a Chatrel system since 1971 for voluntarily paying Tibetans[18]. Paying Tibetans can receive a Green Book which acts as an official document indicating themselves as exiled Tibetans[18]. As many feel the identity of their homeland is being erased[14][15], this system allows them to preserve their Tibetan roots while providing a claim of Tibetan citizenship[18] in preparation for the day many Tibetans hope for sovereignty. Yet, many feel that sovereignty will not come soon due to a lack of global support, exacerbated by China’s assertion of the region resulting in Tibet not being recognized as a state by the UN[19]. Furthermore, the US government maintains that Tibet is under the rule of the PRC and no nation recognizes Tibetan sovereignty[20].

Regional Relations and Diaspora Dynamics

Chinese control over Tibet in the 1950s also affected Tibet’s relationships with neighbors such as India, Nepal, and Bhutan. After the failed Tibetan uprising in 1959, India provided sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees[21], while many also fled to Nepal and Bhutan[22]. Cultural and religious overlap between India and Tibet has sustained this relationship, however, the presence of Tibetan refugees in India does pose a strain on Sino-Indian relations[23]. Aiding Tibet creates an intricate political dance between major powers such as India, China, and the USA[23], highlighting the important political implications that ensue when a nation has relations with Tibet.

Tibetan Protesters against Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in New York City. Image taken by SFT HQ.

Nepal also shares many religious similarities with Tibet and houses many refugees[22]. Likewise, this poses a delicate situation in which Nepal must balance its relationships between the culturally similar Tibet and major powers like China and India[22]. Nepal is concerned over security risks associated with Tibetan relationships, including the fear of hostile Chinese reactions caused by US interest in the region[22] and related to Tibetan refugees in Nepal being anti-Chinese[22]. Bhutan is another nation caught in the crosshairs. Bhutan, a small Buddhist kingdom[24], is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically close to Tibet[25]. Still, Bhutan must act in mind to appease more powerful forces like China, including by prohibiting Tibetan Refugees from protesting against Chinese rule in their homeland[25]. This poses a challenge to Tibetans in Bhutan who want to share their concerns that their identity and culture is being erased.

Tibetan people and culture can be found far away from the Himalayas as well, such as in the US[19] and Canada[26]. These nations provide more freedom for Tibetans to be vocal about their political stances and displeasure against the PRC. The Tibetan diaspora in New York is one of the largest Tibetan communities in the West[19]. They are unifying to preserve their culture despite having different backgrounds and facing tremendous challenges[19]. The Tibetan diaspora holds events to promote their culture and try to help one another in hopes of keeping their identity alive[19][26] amidst feelings of their homeland being overtaken. Culture and identity living through the diasporic community might be one of the best hopes Tibetans have for promoting their struggle. This is especially essential since nations neighboring Tibet, like India, Nepal, and Bhutan[22][23][25], often find difficulties in allowing for refugees to express their voices due to wanting to maintain good political relations with China. However, even nations with more apparent freedom fear making official statements in support of Tibet as to maintain relations with the PRC[19][20], meaning that political challenges are present for Tibetans globally.

Concluding Remarks

This essay has covered the challenges of Tibetans in sustaining their cultural identity in the wake of being overshadowed by the PRC. The diaspora plays an integral role in sustaining Tibetan identity by striving to maintain their cultural heritage. This essay has highlighted how Tibetan identify has been shaped historically, how it is currently being altered, and has focused on the challenges associated with the modern geopolitical landscape due to concerns over global relations. This essay has thus laid the groundwork for the argument that the intricacies of global political relationships limit the ability of Tibetans to garner crucial international support because many nations fear that Tibetan sentiment may provoke the globally influential and powerful PRC into retaliatory action.

Traditional Customs and Language

Current Context of Tibetan Culture and Language

Understanding the current cultural context of Tibetan culture and language must begin with the understanding of its positioning and location on the world map. The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) sits between two world powers, but falls within the People’s Republic of China’s political boundaries. While it borders the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai, and shares many cultural and linguistic similarities, the residents of the Tibetan Autonomous Region primarily identity as “Tibetan”, rather than “Chinese”. While the region is “autonomous”, the Chinese government has been showing its authority and making its presence known to this region through its dominance and occupation of Tibetan culture and language.

With its shared southern border sitting in the high altitude regions of the Himalayan mountain range at 46,000km, the political line is difficult to define on the physical terrain; where this line is drawn in real life is abstract at times. Some have even dubbed this region a “no-nation state”.[27] Due to its inaccessibility, some Indigenous communities have fled up and into the mountain ranges to avoid political conflicts in the past. This isolation from occupational forces and governments supported the sustainability and preservation of these cultures and traditions; the inaccessibility limited “outside” influences that had the potential to alter and modify the traditional customs and practices.

China’s Occupation and Authority

The Tibetan region was officially named the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1965 after its occupation by China in the 1950s. Throughout this period until present day, this region has experienced the implementation of several governmental campaigns and policies. These are the People’s Republic of China’s efforts to make the Tibetan citizens more “Chinese”, and assimilate them into “Chinese” culture. The Chinese Communist Party made it evident that they did not approve of the customs and traditions practiced in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and have explicitly asked for the removal of their governing leadership and implementation of residential language school programs for children. As such, most of the leaders of Tibet, namely the Dalai Lama, live in exile in neighbouring countries, including India and Nepal. Columnist Josh Rogin from The Washington Post calls this issue into the spotlight, stating that “some genocides take place slowly and methodically, without large-scale killing and outside the public’s view”.[28] In saying this, Rogin acknowledges and highlights China’s attempt at doing this “secretly” and culturally cleaning this population without actively killing its citizens. The Geneva Conference in 2023 is also mentioned by Rogin in reiterating that the Chinese Communist Party has enrolled “three-quarters of Tibetan children inside China into what Tibetans call ‘colonial boarding schools,’ designed to deprive them of their cultural identities…”.[28] This intentional act of forced assimilation into the majority culture is a common theme seen in other international genocide cases.

The Chinese Communist Party has also asserted dominance over governing authorities in Tibet by its strong-handed presence and “sharp increase in the appointment of Chinese officials in the Tibetan areas”.[29] These actions are meant to threaten the leaders residing in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and challenge their authority. Additionally, the Chinese government of this region has called for the denouncement of the Dalai Lama to “safeguard the ‘unity of the motherland’”.[30]

Sakya Monastery in Tibet before its destruction. Image created by Arthur J. Hopkinson in 1948.

Buddhist Philosophical Prevalence in Tibet

Tibetan culture and customs are heavily centered around the philosophical beliefs of Buddhist teachings, which has increased tensions between Tibet and the self-proclaimed “atheist” state of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Communist Party has called for the denouncement of Tibet’s leadership and authorities, and the Dalai Lama, a significant religious leader and symbol.[30] However, despite the occupational efforts to diminish Buddhist influence in Tibetan culture, Tibetan Buddhism remains largely prevalent throughout mainland China. Many followers choose Tibetan Buddhism over Chinese Buddhist traditions citing various reasons:

“Although some… were drawn to Tibetan Buddhism for its exoticism and purported cosmic potency, among most of the Buddhist devotees I came to know, the primary sources of Tibetan Buddhism’s appeal was its impeccable moral authority--it was one institution which they believed not to be permeated by cynicism or corrupted by the market… When I asked devotees why they were drawn to Tibetan Buddhism and not to Chinese Buddhist traditions or other religions, my interviewees frequently cited the impurity and degradation of Chinese Buddhist monasteries. They asserted that most important teachings were lost during the Cultural Revolution or that the Community Party and market forces had irrevocably changed monastic life in Han areas. Many claimed that despite the devastation brought by the Cultural Revolution on Tibetan monasteries, Tibetan Buddhism emerged more or less intact from this period because, in the words of one follower, ‘the important doctrines and teachings were in the monks’ minds and were transmitted orally’”.[31]

The isolation, and traditional customs of Tibetan Buddhism has facilitated and supported the preservation of its practices. These traditional practices were preserved and upheld despite occupational efforts to eradicate religious traditions.

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Image created by Senterpartiet (Sp) in 2014.

Preservation of Language and Culture Despite Political Tension

In spite of occupational efforts to assimilate the Tibetan community, Tibetan leadership and citizens have continued their efforts in fighting for language rights and cultural freedoms. On one hand, the Dalai Lama calls for a “‘Middle Way’, that accepts Tibet’s status as a part of China and urges greater cultural and religious freedoms, including strengthened language rights that are guaranteed for ethnic minorities under China’s constitution”.[30] On the other hand, there are also political movements in Tibet “[seeking] complete sovereignty, not (settler given) rights”.[32] While the degree to which Tibet’s autonomy and sovereignty is being demanded differs between political movements and Tibetan voices, they all have a common thread: calling for the protection of Tibetan culture, language, and diversity.

The Tibetan and Himalayan regions are home to some of the most linguistically diverse populations, “where many people are functionally tri- or quadri-lingual”.[33] However, this linguistic diversity is being threatened by the assimilation campaigns imposed by the Chinese Communist Party. Not only is a language essential in celebrating cultural differences, it is also essential in the expressional of cultural frameworks and interpretations of our world.[33] Additionally, a common language is integral to the identity of an individual and of a community. Language is not only a form of communication, but also a “symbolic badge of membership in a particular community, and is a prominent emblem of pride in one’s social or ethnic identity".[33] As such, eliminating the Tibetan languages, and forcing young children to learn Chinese in its place through residential language program schools, the occupational Chinese forces are stripping the next generation of Tibetan residents of their heritage identities. The fight for language rights and cultural freedoms holds these concerns at its forefront with the understanding that erasing Tibetan languages from Tibetan children would heighten the language endangerment and threaten language diversity. This battle for language rights remains heavily dependent on political interference and governmental support. Any change and sustainability efforts to preserve the language and culture within Tibet must begin with policy change from the Chinese Communist Party.


Subtopic Introduction

Gender in Tibet can be explored through the intersection between traditional Tibetan Buddhist ideologies and western liberal feminist discourse. This essay delves into the complex interplay between Western feminist ideals and traditional Tibetan cultural norms, exploring how the pursuit of gender equality unfolds from western interference and traditional Tibetan buddhist culture. By embracing their unique identity and heritage, Tibetan women navigate the path towards gender equality in a manner that is both authentic and sustainable within their socio-cultural context.

Nuns protesting in Tibet in 2009.

Gender Equality and Modernity

The modern perception on development is fueled by western ideologies, which is seen through industrial innovations and capitalist ventures. As western ideology contributes to permeate cultures all around the world, the riddance of one’s indigenous culture can also unfold. [34]“Feminism” being in the western liberal ideological discourse, is seen through the incorporation of women into capitalist ventures and institutions. Industrial events are a definitive path of development, however the riddance of one’s culture should not occur in the process. [34] The discourse surrounding Women’s Rights in the Himalayas have been ever-changing, birthing shifting ideologies that have shaped the region’s socio-cultural landscape. [35]Development within the gender inequality realm has been examined to occur with an influx of modernity and neo-liberal events. [35]The timeline from women’s roles having been associated solely with domestication to women empowerment, is structured on modern ideas of development such as entrepreneurship and capitalist logic.[35]

In Tibet, while there are discourses on gender inequality that must be attended to, the association Western Ideals as modernity and the sole path to gender inequality must be dismissed. Being a third-world country, the idea of Tibet being regressive is highly prominent vis-a-vis the need for western liberal feminist discourse to permeate Tibetan society. Tibetan sustainability, through the lens of gender, brings attention to dismantling gender inequality in the region without the influx of western ideology, but rather the implementation of traditional Tibetan buddhist values.

Women and Feminism in Tibetan Society

The overall socio-cultural positions of Tibetan women is relatively fair and equal.[36] Most misogynistic societies include rigid systemic forms of oppression such as the dowry system, restriction on access to reproductive health, and constriction on sexual freedom through a religious viewpoint.[36] In Tibet, such systemic misogyny does not unfold.

The concept of feminism is the voice of western liberal feminist discourse, and despite its intention of achieving gender equality, actually manages to transfigure itself into an imperialist idea when implemented. To make sense of this further, western women had come to volunteer at the Tibetan Women Association with the intention of aiding a third-world country and their women, but were instead met with a revelation that “they may have found the condition of Tibetan women with regard to men to be actually exceeding that of western women.”[36]

In Tibet, there is scarce amount of women in leadership and political positions, the way men are, and despite having a highly fair society, women do not face issues of their autonomy being completely unrecognized[36]. Women are still associated with ideas of domestication and subordination, although the rank between men and women in most third-world societies are a lot closer in measure in Tibetan society.

Buddhist philosophy and Feminist theory

In contradiction to the supposed idea that gender equality was introduced through modern interaction, Ancient Buddhist nuns argue otherwise. Distancing this argument from Western feminist discourse, Buddhist nuns perceive concepts like feminism, gender equality and women’s empowerment within their cultural and religious context, matching similar discussion spoken by western feminist discourses.[37] There is a foreignness on imposing the term ”feminism” on buddhist tradition.[37] Attempting to ‘save’ Tibetan women in a western discourse falls into the space of becoming a nuanced form of imperialism, perpetuating the notion of “saving brown women from brown men.” [37]Therefore, imposing “feminism” on Tibetan women manages to shine light of white women’s voices, misinterpretation Buddhist principle through a western lens, which thus does not effectively aid for gender equality and women's rights in away that empowers but rather dismisses a Tibetan women’s cultural background.[37] Third world women, who are religious, with its synonymity with regression, can not be perceived to hold progressive values such as “feminism”, more so to understand her agency, and rights of liberation.[37]

Buddhist philosophy and feminist theory have parallel values which revolve around concepts of “personal identity, nonduality, interdependence and liberation.”[37] Tibetan translations for feminism are “bud med ring lugs”, needless to say that the implementation of “feminism” is needed for Tibetan women, whether Buddhist Tibetan women have made incredible efforts to aid in the improving “health, wellbeing, educational opportunities, employment, spiritual development, monastic and social status, and safety" of female comrades within their own cultural understandings.[37]

For example, Tibetan women have been contributing significantly to Tibetan literature, working on building opportunities for education for nuns, and preserving and promoting Tibetan women’s history. Furthermore, Tibetan nuns at Larung Gar conduct study sessions on women’s rights in the attempt of sparking a religious movement. Tibetan nuns are ambitious, aiming for gender equality however women movements seem to get lost in “anglophone liberal feminist discourse”, and thus fail to reflect the Nun's culture, religion, identities and intentions.[37]

Tibetan 20th century Nationalism and Monastic women

Tibetan Nuns Praying.jpg

Amongst the rise of modern nationalism in the 20th century, Tibetan nuns were highly participative in freedom protests, even more so than monks. [38]Tibetan nuns, with their ancient buddhist background, are highly supportive of gender equality within Tibetan society. Even so, women escape issues with gender inequality by joining the monastic realm, for reasons of preserving traditional Tibetan religion and culture and achieving a higher status. [38]There has been an increase of nunneries in Tibet over the last decade and a major reason for that is the role of monasticism, nuns in particular, and their fierce contribution to Tibetan nationalism.[38]

Conclusion: “Feminism” through traditional Tibetan Culture

Tibetan Nuns and Buddhism do not subjugate or perpetuate ideas of women’s inferiority, however grant women access to a gender equal discourse, and ride the wave of “modernity” that western liberal feminist interference attempts to do. Therefore, the ambition of gender equality is achievable through sustaining Tibetan culture and religious beliefs.[39]

“… I want to see a feminism that accepts all kinds of womanhood and personhood, that is able to make space and account for the voices of those who may be content –such as our grandmothers, who may enjoy their status as grandmothers and who aren’t necessarily dis-empowered by it…. For me as a Tibetan feminist, I don’t want to make the same mistakes white feminists make by telling us what and how to think when it comes to empowerment, instead I want to understand all the many different ways in which Tibetan women have felt empowered in history and in the present. ”[39]

Feminism, in its goal of women and men being at equality with each other, unfolds in variance across the global’s multi-cultural variance. Tibetan women’s achievements of gender equality in a modern discourse, occurs in their nationalistic version, which can unfold through practicing ancient religious ideologies, and not the expected imposed idea of modernity and its association with western ideologies.  


Subtopic Introduction

In the 7th century, teachings of Buddhism from India, China and Central Asia began to trickle into Tibetan culture. [39] This is where we begin to see the branching of Tibetan Buddhism from other forms of Buddhism. In Tibet, Buddhism began as a courtly religion until the empire collapsed in 842, thereafter Buddhism spread to the household level. [39] By the time of household level Buddhism in Tibet, monasteries became a site of cultural and political power; monasteries owned land that was funded by taxes, they became centres for knowledge, literacy and art as well as spiritual guidance. [39][40] In 1949, China invaded Tibet and annexed the land and its people.[40] This Chinese invasion took the lives of over one million Tibetans.[40] Shortly after in 1959, the widely held spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism The Dalai Lama fled to India to live in exile with 150,000 Tibetans following him.[40] The Chinese control over Tibet worked to dismantle the centralized power of monasteries; the power of intertwined political, cultural and religious control.[41] The Chinese Communist Party employed re-education campaigns as well as imposed religious persecution for those who support The Dalai Lama.[40] Today, Tibet is still under the control of Chinese rule, but Tibetans continually make significant efforts towards preserving their ways of life, resulting in the pervasive nature of Tibetan religious customs.

Religious Sustainabilities

Although Tibetans have faced relentless religious oppression, Tibetan Buddhism has endured and grown. Tibetan Buddhism has been globalized via adaptability, perseverance and pervasive religious symbols. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have been built beyond the geographic limitations of Tibet; there are around forty monasteries and Tibetan religious institutions in the Kathmandu valley alone, and hundreds have been built in India.[41] The Tibetan diaspora can be credited with upholding their religion and culture in novel environments. With the geographical expansion of Tibetan Buddhism also came an ideological expansion, for instance the inclusion of women into the religious practice. A historic milestone was achieved in 2011 when a German convert to Tibetan Buddhism, Kelsang Wangmo, became the first women to be awarded the Geshe degree-- the pinnacle of scholarly training within the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.[41] This modernization and adaptability of Tibetan Buddhism to including women within their tradition has contributed to the sustainability of the religion by expanding its reach. Furthermore, The Buddhist Digital Resource Centre (formally called the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre) website provides free access to the largest online archive of translated Buddhist text in the world, incurring thousands of visitors daily.[42] This adoption of language translation and seizing digital space as opportunity for religious pervasiveness contributes to Tibet's overall cultural and religious sustainability.

Pervasive Symbols

Tibetan prayer flags on display at Rainier BaseCamp Bar & Grill in Washington, USA

To the right is an image of Tibetan prayer flags hung in a restaurant in Ashford, Washington, United States. The artistic practices of Tibetan culture in this case has travelled over 12 thousand kilometers into a small town American restaurant. Tibetan prayer flags are thought to have originated with the Tibetan Bon religion, with designs indicative of Tibetan Buddhism largely understood as a later addition.[43] Tibetan prayer flags are called "rlung rta" in local culture, where "rlung" measn air and "rta" refers to a symbolic horse that takes you where you want to go-- cumulating to an idea of the prayer flags symbolizing accomplishing your goals with good fortune.[43] Tibetan prayer flags typically have four animals designed on the four corners of the flag-- some scholars believe these animals to symbolize the four elements in nature, a characteristic surviving from the Tibetan pre-Buddhist Bon religion reflective of the belief of their livelihoods being entangled with nature.[43] The global pervasiveness of these Tibetan prayer flags underscores the sustainability and growth of Tibetan culture and religion.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (The Bardo Thödol) is another pervasive symbol of Tibetan religion, the translation of this text has allowed Westerners to understand and connect with Tibetan Buddhism. The Bardo Thödol essentially exists as a funeral rite to help guide the deceased or dying through the process of death and rebirth.[44] Since its initial translation in 1927, the English rendition of the Bardo Thödol, known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, has gained renown as the most celebrated Buddhist text in the Western world, selling over a million copies.[45] The pervasiveness of this text with its inherently Tibetan Buddhist conceptual frameworks surrounding the death and rebirth cycle is evidence for the adaptability and growth of Tibetan religion and culture.


Tibetans have long endured the oppressive force of China on their culture and religion, but the sustainability of their cultural sovereignty has remained powerful. Self-immolation in Tibet has become a form of protest that captures attention worldwide. Since 2009, 159 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet (last updated April 6, 2022).[46] It seems that in the Tibetan cultural context the self-immolators are revered for their ultimate sacrifice; "There is not even a word for ‘martyr’ in the Tibetan language: the self-immolators are usually referred to in Tibetan as pawo (dpa’ bo), which translates as ‘hero’, ‘courageous person’, ‘(spiritual) warrior’".[47] Tibetan self-immolators often leave notes or statements expressing their deep desire for Tibetan sovereignty from China. With such an intense act such as setting oneself on fire, the media is drawn to reporting on these self-immolations-- carrying these protest statements globally. This ultimate form of self-sacrifice, setting one-self on fire as protest, can be seen as an extreme form of commitment to religious and cultural sustainability.

The Role of Visual Culture and Art: Sustaining Identity and Heritage

Subtopic Introduction

The art, the material and the visual cultures of humanity have served as powerful mediums for storytelling, religiosity, and social identity. In Tibet, encircled by rapid globalization and Chinese oppression, the preservation and promotion of Tibetan culture (i.e., through language, art, and Buddhism) have emerged as pressing concerns. Indeed, since the Chinese invaded and took over the region in 1950,[48] Tibetan ways of life and culture have been firmly repressed; exemplified by the forced resettlement of Indigenous nomadic groups and the imposition of state-wide Chinese language education.[49][50] Concerning Tibetans in exile, they too confront the looming threat of sociocultural erosion amid assimilation pressures within host nations, such as within Europe and North America.[49][50] Thus, how can Tibetans sustain their ways of knowing and doing in a world where they no longer possess the right to self-determination in their homeland, and face assimilation elsewhere? I believe that the transmission and teaching of Tibetan visual and material culture may stand at the forefront of offering a path to safeguarding Tibetan cultural identity, particularly in the face of encroaching external influences. In this subsection, I will provide an analysis exploring how Tibetan visual culture and art contribute to cultural sustainability. Namely, I will explore how these artistic expressions serve as repositories of collective memory and community engagement, acting as vital vehicles for cultural transmission. This focus is critical to highlight because the fine arts are often marginalized during periods of social instability and precarity,[51] as is reflected by the precarious status of Tibetans in exile and within Tibet itself.

Revival of Tibetan Visual Culture: From Monastic Tradition to Contemporary Identity

In Tibet, the production of visual and material art has historically been intertwined with Tibetan monastic institutions. This connection remains evident in Chinese-occupied Tibet; following the relaxation of regulations on religious practice in the 1980s, Tibetans initiated a revival of traditional cultural production with the restoration of many monasteries.[52] This cultural resurgence not only contributed to the revitalization of Tibetan Buddhism but also sparked a growing interest in Tibetan visual art culture, both domestically and internationally. In the last two decades, these arts have emerged as a newfound cultural force, asserting Tibetan identity and modernity within both Tibet and Tibetan communities worldwide.[53] These artists have employed innovative strategies to infuse Buddhist visual elements with contemporary interpretations, effectively asserting their cultural identity within a present milieu.[54] At the heart of this phenomenon lies the notion of a shared visual language.[54] This art lexicon underlines the culturally significant aspect of Tibetan visual and material art traditions. With its distinctive iconographic and aesthetic elements, especially those intertwined with Buddhism,[55] Tibetan visual art gives rise to a unique visual vocabulary. I believe this visual language, deeply ingrained in cultural heritage, can help facilitate the transmission of Tibetan identity and heritage across generations. This functions similarly to spoken and written language in transmitting cultural values, albeit in a different expression (i.e., through visual and material art).

In one example, paintings by contemporary Tibetan artist Gadé retain a distinctly Tibetan appearance, characterized by the aesthetics of the centuries-old Buddhist arts.[56] This remains true despite his works incorporating elements of popular culture and global trends from the latter half of the 20th century.[56] Through this fusion, Gadé firmly establishes his Tibetan identity and roots, connecting to the rich history of Tibetan art and its legacy of a shared visual language that defines collective memory.[56] Here is a Tibetan artist who explicitly connects with his heritage through culturally mediated visual art, specifically Tibetan aesthetic painting. Gadé is a professional artist and by no means represents the average Tibetan. Still, his example illustrates how Tibetan art production, as a process of creating and doing, can serve as a valuable tool for sustaining and connecting with Tibetan cultural heritage. Notably, this is amidst the consistent uncertainty of their cultural future as their homeland remains under Chinese occupation.

This image depicts a Tibetan youth painting in the Thangka style. It was photographed and uploaded by Luca Galuzzi (2006).

Preserving Tibetan Culture Through Visual Arts and Cultural Institutions

Tibetans have long perceived the Chinese-driven suppression of their culture as a form of cultural genocide, aimed at eradicating Tibetan ways of life.[57][50] Additionally, given the threat of assimilation in host contexts, it's understandable that Tibetan diasporic communities feel eagerly compelled to establish cultural programs for youth, to transmit their heritage. This stark reality became apparent to me during a recent field trip to a Tibetan monastery in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The attending Rinpoche (i.e., spiritual leader) of the monastery discussed ongoing collaborations with the Tibetan Cultural Society of BC (TCSBC) to provide Tibetan language programs for local youth.[50] A living language, that is one being actively spoken and passed down from one generation to the next, is no doubt a good indicator of one's heritage and culture being alive. Therefore, it is sensible that the primary emphasis of cultural sustainability for both the monastery and TCSBC would be to promote and preserve the Tibetan language. While revitalizing Tibetan heritage through language is crucial for its renewal, I would venture that visual culture and art hold equal importance in this endeavour. This belief is certainly held by Tibetans in exile in Dharamshala, India. They have established various educational institutions focused on transmitting their culture through the visual arts, including music, dance, and song.[49][50]

In Dharamshala, the Norbulingka Institute also shares a similar goal of preserving the artistic practice of Tibetan Buddhist culture.[51] Their specific mission involves transmitting this knowledge to aspiring young artists who wish to delve into their cultural legacy.[51] Operating on a sustainable business model, the institute serves as its own benefactor, enabling it to offer employment and training opportunities to Tibetans in exile.[51] Norbulingka takes the concept of Tibetan cultural sustainability through the visual arts a step further than merely teaching these art forms. The Institute has implemented a community-centered economic approach to Tibetan sustainability, particularly concerning visual culture and art. This strategy involves diversifying income streams through vacation guesthouses and two restaurants.[51] The primary goal of these businesses is to alleviate the pressure on Norbulingka's artists to produce large volumes of art.[51] Consequently, artists can prioritize the authenticity of their artistic traditions within this environment.[51] Norbulingka epitomizes Tibetan cultural sustainability through visual culture, both in a creative and pragmatic sense. Not only does it actively support Tibetan art through patronage, but it also operates under a business model that promotes self-determination and allows for an organic approach to commodifying visual culture. Unlike businesses driven solely by demand, Norbulingka's organizational structure enables artists to avoid mass production pressures, thus preserving the integrity of their artistic practices.


As discussed, the challenges facing Tibetan cultural sustainability, both within Tibet and among its diaspora are profound. The enduring oppression by the Chinese government overlaps with the pressures of assimilation in host nations, producing a nexus that threatens the very fabric of Tibetan identity and heritage on a global scale. Nevertheless, Tibetans remain steadfast amidst these challenges to renew and promote their culture. Visual art emerges as a potent force in this pursuit of preservation and transmission. The aesthetic practices which are intimately bound up with Tibetan sociocultural ways of knowing (e.g., through Gadé’s works), serve as repositories of collective memory and facilitate cultural transmission. The notion of a shared visual language embodies the continuation of Tibetan cultural heritafge, such that it can transcend the barriers of time and space. As one tangible manifestation, we see this occurring through the infusion of Buddhist visual elements with Gadé’s contemporary interpretations of Tibetan culture. In addition, organizations such as the Norbulingka Institute exemplify a community-engaged economic approach to cultural sustainability, relieving artists of mass production pressures while promoting self-determination and revitalization. Despite the current challenges faced by Tibetans, the resilience and creative legacy inherent in Tibetan visual culture provide a means for the sustainable dissemination of their cultural heritage across borders, and to the next generation.

Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability

Snowy Mountains Chain in the Tibetan Plateau

Subtopic Introduction: Climate Change in the Tibetan Plateau

Climate change in the Tibetan Plateau is an urgent issue worrying experts and locals alike. The region, referred to as the Earth’s Third Pole, supplies water to approximately 1.4 billion people but is warming at a rate three times faster than the global average, which significantly increases the consequences on the climate and the water resources [58]. This alarming trend puts nearly two-thirds of the region's glaciers and 81% of its permafrost at risk of melting by the end of the century[59]. Furthermore, the heightened pollution in urban areas exacerbates glacier melting as it leads to the deposition of black dust that darkens their white surface, attracting more sun rays[60]. The subsequent consequences of this increasingly rapid melting threaten to increase flooding in the short-term and droughts in the future[61]. All of these issues can still be managed and improved, but require the collaboration of the People's Republic of China, which has exercised control over the region since 1959 and significantly contributed to the current state of things with its policies of displacement, dispossession, and resource exploitation.

Displacement of Pastoral Communities and Policies

Not only will climate change in the Tibetan Plateau have massive global impacts due to the water it supplies to neighbouring countries, but it will also cause harm to the local population, especially the pastoral communities who have seen their lifestyles dramatically impacted by climate change and Chinese policies in the past few decades. These nomads, who have inhabited the region for at least 8,000 years, have been forcefully displaced from their land and made to move to urban areas where they cannot practice their traditional modes of subsistence or take care of the land[62]. Known as the Western Development Strategy, these policies of mass displacement, land confiscation, and fencing of pastoral areas have forced thousands of Tibetans to give up on their ancestral ways of life[61]. These Tibetans are left with no choice but to endure the exploitation of their resources by the Chinese government and adapt to new ways of sustaining themselves that deviate from their traditional practices. The Western Development Strategy has been justified by emphasizing negative portrayals of pastoralism and painting this lifestyle as detrimental to the environment. However, experts argue that grazing actually benefits the land and consumes minimal water, meaning that it is a sustainable method of food production sacrificed for the sake of promoting the tourism industry in the region and maximizing the exploitation of natural resources[61]. Putting forward these accusations is also disrespectful to those who have been caretakers of the land for millennia and have always lived in harmony with the land and animals, careful not to harm the environment. While the melting of glaciers and permafrost could initially open up opportunities for greater farming and livestock grazing by providing more land to work with, which could be beneficial for pastoralism, the resulting flooding and droughts will render the land unsuitable for these activities in the long term[61]. Additionally, it is unlikely that the Chinese policies would even allow for the creation of new farming areas or allow pastoralism to regain the place it once had in the life of many Tibetans given its history of continuously dispossessing them of their land and rights.

China’s significant impact on climate change in the region is also evident through its extensive investment in damming, deforestation, and mining projects, all of which pose serious threats to local ecosystems and are proven to be hazardous in earthquake-prone areas[61]. In a region that is already highly vulnerable to global warming, the priorities of the ruling government are not to set in place sustainable practices from a cultural, social, and environmental point of view, but to maximize the wealth of the country.

Spiritual Grief

The impacts of climate change and the disruption of traditional relationships between Tibetans and the land also lead to profound spiritual grief. Indeed, many Tibetans believe that all things are alive and interconnected, meaning that the mining of mountains or the damming of lakes is seen as a betrayal that harms the deities and other life forms that live within these landscapes[63]. The mass exploitation of natural resources necessary for the functioning of a capitalist economy requires losing the knowledge of the connectivity between all beings, as it is only regarding nature as separate and lifeless that allows them to harm it guilt-free. This spiritual worldview highlights the profound impact of climate change on Tibetans, as the dying Earth brings forth a complex sense of grief over the harm caused to what they believe to be a fellow living being. Many of them believe climate change to be a form of divine wrath inflicted by angry gods for the way humans have been disrespectful through their exploitation of nonhuman forms of life, for which they are being punished with natural catastrophes[64]. Climate change is thus more than an upcoming threat to them to deal with for the survival of human life; it is a complex and current disaster that has already caused unrepairable harm.

Hope and Sustainability

Despite the challenges that climate change has brought the region, there have been some positive developments in recent years that suggest the possibility of a sustainable future that could potentially curb the dire consequences that Tibetans currently face. For example, the warmer temperatures have improved agricultural practices, allowing for a greater variety of crops and more frequent harvests[60]. The new methods of irrigated agriculture have also resulted in more frequent snowfalls on the glaciers, offsetting much of the melting and regulating the conditions on mountaintops[60]. These small glimmers of hope emphasize the importance of sustainability in the years ahead, as the situation has yet to reach a point of no return. Experts therefore emphasize the need to remain vigilant and work towards long-term solutions.

Discussing sustainability in the Tibetan Plateau necessitates acknowledging the detrimental effects of Chinese policies on the region and its inhabitants. Numerous Chinese environmentalists have called for an immediate halt to the damming, deforestation, and mining projects exacerbating the environmental crisis[61]. Research suggests that identifying Tibet as a Special Sustainability Zone may have positive consequences, as it would demonstrate an understanding that many Tibetans prioritize sustainable living over economic growth, which would revive their traditional practices[65]. It has been established that the empowerment of traditional cultures has a positive impact on biodiversity as they push people to care more deeply about the conservation of wildlife and natural landscapes[66]. Environmental sustainability can therefore not be isolated from the development of social, cultural, and economic sustainability as it necessitates the restoration of the pastoral lifestyle that has been lost due to Chinese policies since the 1950s for the land to be used in an endurable manner. Promoting environmental sustainability also requires safeguarding the capacity of specific ecosystems and rejuvenating them by protecting their biodiversity and the life forms that depend on them, which would force the government to take into account the weight that their decisions have on the environment -an accountability that may keep harmful policies from being set in place [65].

Domestic animals and people


The Tibetan Plateau is home to unique symbiotic relationships between humans and domestic animals, both farm animals and companion animals. These relationships have been cultivated over thousands of years, constantly changing and adapting to the sometimes harsh and unpredictable environment of the Himalayas, and Tibet in particular. Efforts to understand the intricate bonds between humans and domestic animals offer important insights into Tibetan sustainability and the many ways in which human and animal lives are connected.

The agricultural history of Tibet is rooted deeply in a pastoralism-based lifestyle. Nomadic herding has been a sustainable way of life for Tibetans for thousands of years, shaping the local culture, economy, and social structure. Domestic farm animals such as yaks, sheep, goats, and horses are not just sources of livelihood but are also incredibly important to Tibetan culture and society overall. These farm animals provide wool for fibers and clothing, milk for drinking and cooking, and serve as a mode of transportation across some of the rough terrain of Tibet. According to a Tibetan news website, the three major threatening factors facing yaks are climate change, market forces, and government policies[67]. These factors are important to consider in the context of domestic animals and humans.

Yak calf roaming a small farming village in YunNan, China

Domestic animal products

From an economic perspective, domestic animals, particularly farm animals, play a vital role in the lives of Tibetans. Yaks, an animal that can thrive in high altitudes and cold temperatures, are valued for both the primary product they provide – meat– and the secondary products that they provide, such as their yak butter and wool. Yak wool is spun into yarn by local artisans and then used to make tents, clothing, and ropes. Yak butter, and yak butter tea, is a staple in Tibetan cuisine and a daily snack in many Tibetan households.

Sheep and goats are also essential for their wool and meat. Their dung can be repurposed as fuel for heating and cooking, making them invaluable in regions of Tibet where firewood is difficult to find. Horses, though less common than yaks, are still used for transportation and in some traditional Tibetan festivals.

Art and Spirituality

Wheel of Existence, Author Unknown. From: The Rubin . (n.d.). Wheel of Existence . Project Himalayan Art. Retrieved from

Beyond their economic value, domestic animals hold deep cultural and spiritual significance in Tibetan society. They are often seen as companions and are treated with respect and care. Tibetan Buddhism, which permeates every aspect of Tibetan life, emphasizes compassion towards all sentient beings, including animals. Animals are featured prominently in Tibetan folklore, art, and religious rituals. The Wheel of Existence is a Tibetan tapestry painting that represents the cyclical processes of life, death, and rebirth. In this painting, “ The Lord of Death, Yama, grips a wheel driven by three animals representing the mental poisons—attachment (rooster), anger (snake), and ignorance (pig)—at its hub”[68]. Domestic animals such as roosters, pigs, and other farm animals can represent many positive and negative personalities in different cultures. Yaks are not only incredibly important livestock, but also symbols of Tibetan identity, resilience, and the myth of Shangri-La[69].

The Tibetan concept of sustainability extends beyond mere economic and cultural considerations to include environmental stewardship. Nomadic herding practices are often cited as a sustainable form of land management. The movement of herds helps prevent overgrazing and allows grasslands to regenerate, maintaining the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau. Furthermore, the Tibetan people have a deep understanding of the natural world and its cycles. Traditional knowledge passed down through generations guides them in living harmoniously with their environment. This indigenous wisdom is increasingly recognized as valuable in the face of climate change and environmental degradation.

Modern challenges

Despite the resilience and adaptability of Tibetan pastoralism, it faces numerous challenges in the modern world. Climate change is altering the Himalayan landscape, making it increasingly difficult for both humans and animals to survive. Extreme weather events, such as droughts and blizzards, can devastate herds and threaten livelihoods. Modernization and urbanization are also impacting traditional ways of life[70]. Younger generations are leaving rural areas in search of better opportunities, leading to a decline in nomadic herding practices. Government policies aimed at the sedentarization of nomadic communities further exaggerate these challenges. In response to these challenges, Tibetans are adapting their traditional practices to meet contemporary needs while preserving their cultural heritage. Sustainable tourism, organic farming, and the production of artisanal goods are emerging as alternative sources of income for Tibetan communities. These initiatives not only contribute to local economies but also raise awareness about the importance of preserving Tibetan culture and environment.

In a biological research paper, Shen et al. looks at how human activities, influenced by culture, affect bird population. In Tibet, domestic animals are integral to the way of life and examining human-animal interactions can provide insights into sustainable practices that will benefit both humans and animals in the future[71]. The article explores how traditional Tibetan culture and common practices affect bird diversity. This scope of research can be expanded to understand how these practices affect domestic animals such as sheep, goats and yaks. Shen et al. also discusses how modernization and science impact traditional practices and bird diversity. This can be paralleled with the impact of modernization on traditional Tibetan animal husbandry practices and their implications for cultural preservation and conservation.


The relationship between humans and domestic animals in Tibet is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the Tibetan people. It reflects a holistic approach to sustainability that includes economic, cultural, spiritual, and environmental aspects. As we continue to struggle with global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss, the Tibetan model of sustainability offers valuable lessons. It reminds us of the interconnectedness of all life and the importance of living in harmony with nature. In the face of challenges, the people of Tibet continue to draw strength from their deep-rooted connection to the land and its animals.


This resource was created by the UBC Wiki Community.
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